In Anaheim, taco vendors and officials play a game of a cat-and-mouse

Anaheim officials and taco vendors play cat-and-mouse.

As Anaheim code enforcement trucks pulled up to the city storage yard with grills, portable generators and propane tanks, scouts dispatched by street vendors were on the lookout.

Sometimes peering through binoculars, the scouts noted when the equipment, seized from unpermitted taco stands, was dropped off, so they could avoid being targets themselves, according to city documents obtained by The Times.

Last October, with taco pop-ups proliferating during the pandemic, Anaheim officials teamed up wtih Orange County health officials to step up enforcement, confiscating equipment and issuing citations.

But by June, they had canceled the weekday patrols. The vendors were often one step ahead. When they did get caught, some didn’t give their real names and didn’t pay the fines. The cost of losing their equipment was a price they were willing to pay to keep operating.

The Anaheim documents offer an inside look at a cat-and-mouse game that is playing out across the state, as local officials field complaints from residents and bricks-and-mortar businesses while the taco stands find plenty of willing customers. A 2018 state law that largely decriminalized street vending has left Anaheim and other cities with limited enforcement options.

Taquería San Martin owner Serapia Silverio Alonso believes that illegal street food vendors are negatively impacting his business.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

From January through October, the Anaheim enforcement program resulted in more than 100 illegal street vending citations and 85 equipment impound cases, according to the city. Recently, code enforcement officers have extended their hours, hoping to push the stands to open later in the evening.

But that hasn’t made much of a dent in a city where 100 complaints — from customers who say they fell ill to business owners complaining about the unfair competition — are filed in a typical month.

Some customers who line up for low-priced street food say that city officials have better things to do than target immigrant entrepreneurs.

On a break from his job at a circuit board company, Abraham Martinez ate $2.50 al pastor tacos and a $9 quesadilla de chorizo at Tacos El Chivo, a stand that regularly sets up in Anaheim Hills and has been repeatedly targeted by the city.

“We don’t crack down on a lot of things that should be cracked down on,” said Martinez, 29, an Anaheim resident. “Most of these people are good, hard-working people. They don’t bother anyone.”

That night, no enforcement officers appeared. But during the summer, county health officers impounded Tacos El Chivo’s grill and discarded its food, according to the report obtained by The Times. That was one of many raids at Tacos El Chivo, including three in one week, said Mario Alvarez, a co-owner.

Alvarez, 32, worked at another taco stand, Angel’s Tijuana Tacos, learning the trade and saving money to start his own business with his brothers, all Guatemalan immigrants who were construction workers and tailors before the pandemic.

Tacos El Chivo operated for five months without problems until city code enforcement and county health officials blitzed the business, Alvarez said.

Customers line up at Tacos El Chivo on North Lakeview Avenue in Anaheim.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“All our equipment was impounded, and each time it cost us about $8,000, including all the meat that was thrown away.” He estimates that, in total, the business lost $90,000 in equipment and food.

“The first time we were raided, it hurt us a lot,” he said. “But since we worked for a boss before that who had the same troubles, we knew what to expect.”

“While enjoying meals from street vendors has become popular, we cannot allow unsafe food conditions to endanger public health,” Mayor Valerie Amezcua said in a statement.

Like Tacos El Chivo, which sets up in front of a Kaiser medical clinic, many street stands in Anaheim occupy territory with no Mexican restaurants nearby.

Still, some bricks-and mortar taquería owners have flooded the city with angry phone calls about vendors along major streets, who, they say, are operating too close to their businesses and don’t pay rent or taxes.

Some residents filing anonymous complaints to the city evoke a rallying cry familiar in Orange County — that Anaheim, which is 53% Latino, is on the verge of turning into Compton, East Los Angeles or even Tijuana.

The issue is brewing elsewhere in the county. In just over a month, neighboring Santa Ana and the Orange County Health Care Agency shut down over 100 sidewalk street vendors that they considered to be selling food” unfit for human consumption and operating without the proper health permit.”

“While enjoying meals from street vendors has become popular, we cannot allow unsafe food conditions to endanger public health,” Mayor Valerie Amezcua said in a statement.

In Anaheim, Taquería San Martin, a hole-in-the-wall nestled in the corner of a strip mall, abbreviated its late night hours because of competition from nearby taco stands, said owner Serapia Silverio Alonso.

In August, Alonso met with a council member and the city manager, but nothing came of it, he said. He believes many of the stands are not the work of small-time entrepreneurs but of a taco kingpin from Los Angeles who operates dozens of stands like a “mafia.”

“I worked hard for 23 years to build my business,” Alonso said. “It’s not fair that other people come here from afar to make easy money.”

On a recent Friday night, after Taquería San Martin shut its doors at 10 p.m., Angel’s Tijuana Tacos bustled a mile away. A taquero shaved al pastor with a large kitchen knife from a spit topped with pineapple slices. A taco at the bricks-and-mortar taqueria goes for $2 while Angel’s offerings cost 50 cents more.

Aside from tacos, both serve up burritos and quesadillas.

“This plate is for here and this other one is to go,” a customer said, scarfing down the tacos before taking his change.

Angel’s Tijuana Tacos operates stands in 15 cities throughout Southern California, from North Hollywood to Santa Ana. Its Instagram profile boasts 345,000 followers.

Serapia Silverio Alonso warms some tortillas at his restaurant Taquería San Martin in Anaheim. “I worked hard for 23 years to build my business,” he says, noting that illegal street food vendors pay no rent or taxes.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In Anaheim, Angel’s equipment has been impounded multiple times, but the stand keeps operating, night after night.

In April, Disneyland pushed the city to get tougher on street food vendors.

Even though the Disneyland Resort is a no-vending zone, fruteros and water vendors have set up outside entrances.

Carrie Nocella, Disneyland Resort’s director of external affairs, worked to rally support for proposed state legislation that would allow for stiffer, escalating fines. The legislation failed.

City officials say that underground businesses that can deploy lookouts at city storage yards and readily replace expensive equipment are likely part of larger operations that may be exploiting immigrant line cooks in human trafficking operations.

“People buying food at illegal street vendors should know they may not be buying from the immigrant entrepreneurs they think they are,” said Mike Lyster, a spokesman for the city of Anaheim, “and instead could be unknowingly contributing to human trafficking and exploitation.”

Customers line up at Tacos El Chivo on North Lakeview Avenue in Anaheim.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The claim is based on anecdotal evidence, and the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force hasn’t prosecuted any such cases, according to the Anaheim Police Department.

Stephen Lee, a UC Irvine law professor who focuses on immigration and has written about street food justice, said that immigrants in informal economies are vulnerable to exploitation but that street vending is likely no worse than other industries.

“There’s going to be an economic exploitation, but that’s true of any kind of industry,” Lee said. “I haven’t seen anything that suggests street vendors are particularly vulnerable or notable in that regard.”

A new state law, SB 972, that takes effect next year will make obtaining a health permit easier for street food vendors. Fruit, hot dog and corn carts stand to benefit, but taqueros must cook meat off site at a licensed commissary kitchen.

“The law hasn’t necessarily changed that much when it comes to preparing raw meat on site,” said Katie McKeon, a staff attorney with Public Counsel who co-sponsored the bill. “We were not able to get the various health departments to budge or be creative about how to ensure safe handling of raw meat on the sidewalk.”

After dismantling the weekday patrols, Anaheim in November doubled the hours dedicated to enforcement efforts and is looking to fine-tune its strategies.

Alvarez of Tacos El Chivo said it takes capital to start an above-board business — and he aspires to do that.

“We’re trying to do business legally and maybe have a taco truck one day,” he said. “That’s not a possibility for us right now; otherwise, we would have started that way.”

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